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Serial Season Two, Episode 10 Recap: ‘Thorny Politics’

Bowe Bergdahl’s controversial reception in the Rose Garden. Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Episode ten couldn’t have come at a more appropriate moment. In the weeks since the last episode aired, it’s felt like the relentless stream of election news has rounded the corner of some kind of terrible event horizon, beyond which lies a mysterious continuum of permanent contention and disappointment. Part of this miasmic feeling comes from the interminable and frustrating primary process itself. The rest probably has to do with Trump.

Fittingly, Koenig begins the episode by mentioning how Bergdahl’s defense lawyers have sent a letter to Trump declaring their interest in questioning him over the comments about Bergdahl that he’s been consistently making during his stump speeches. Shockingly (eye roll), Trump has been suggesting that Bergdahl should be executed by firing squad. It’s a great segue into the episode, as it so perfectly captures the political rancor surrounding the Bergdahl case that politicians have intentionally cultivated, which is what “Thorny Politics” focuses on. And as much as I find myself personally repulsed by the pettiness of the Republican response to Bergdahl’s liberation, I was also kind of shocked to find myself agreeing with some of the reasons they were upset with President Obama.

Koenig says in the beginning of the episode that people always tell her they wish the case hadn’t “gotten so political,” that they regret the very limiting modes of discourse in which we can talk about what happened with Bergdahl. I took that to mean that people wish they could talk about it dispassionately. Or, maybe even more ideally, compassionately, instead of immediately being forced to hunker down into a shrill defense of their particular political tribe. Koenig then asks whether this was inevitable, whether the Bergdahl case was absolutely fated to be used as a partisan proxy war. Could it have gone another way? She suggests that, yeah, maybe it could have, if only the optics of one single event had been more thoroughly considered.

It had been President Obama’s intention to announce Bergdahl’s release through a letter. The seemingly elaborate, well-staged — it was neither — Rose Garden address to the nation, in which Bergdahl’s parents were present to say a few words in both English and Pashto kind of just fell together at the last minute, according to Koenig’s sources. Unsurprisingly, everyone who had been working on the trade to get Bowe back — including Jeff Eggers, special assistant to the president on security affairs, who had been literally sleeping at his desk for days before the release because he was so busy — was absolutely overjoyed that it had actually come off. It seemed like an unalloyed good thing to them that an American soldier had finally been freed after spending five years as a POW.

So they were pretty primed to want something more than just a signed statement from the president. Koenig says that it wasn’t so much that they were oblivious to what more elaborate recognition would look like to people who considered Bergdahl a traitor or to the president’s political enemies — it’s just that they were so “happy.” Bergdahl’s parents happened to be in town; they had no idea that their son had been rescued, and, of course, journalists would bristle if they weren’t invited to the statement — and so a nonevent turned into a “thing.” And it set a lot of people off.

After Obama’s Rose Garden announcement, national-security adviser Susan Rice went on TV and mentioned, almost as a clichéd afterthought, that Bowe Bergdahl had served “with honor and distinction.” People who know her said that she only meant that volunteering to serve your country in combat is itself heroic, but that message was muddled. Between Rice’s statement and the Rose Garden event, the gears of conservative outrage were set spinning. On one end of the spectrum were the military guys Bowe had served with; they began to “scream” into the internet, to anyone who would listen, that Bergdahl had walked away from his post. Fox was all over it. Serving as much more than a signal amplifier, the network began reporting anything and everything that served their political agenda, including the “exclusive report” that Bergdahl had converted to Islam while captured and had declared himself a “warrior for Islam.”

Koenig, baffled by the backlash caused by a five-minute ceremony in the Rose Garden, asks Mike Waltz, a former lieutenant colonel and special adviser to Dick Cheney, if everyone was outraged simply by how it “looked.” Waltz says, yeah, it was a “tone-deaf” move on the part of the White House that showed a lack of understanding of military culture, and, he added, he was afraid that the details of Bowe’s case would be swept under the carpet, that there would be “no recognition or even mention about … irregularities.” He was worried about objectivity; about there not being a public statement promising that justice would be served.

Koenig buys it. I don’t. The so-called objectivity that Waltz pines for is predicated upon its own set of subjective biases. For instance, Bergdahl’s case going to a court-martial, even after it was recommended at a pretrial hearing that Bowe not face jail time, is its own kind of bias. The guy spent five years in captivity, living in worse-than-squalid conditions, and he was so fucked up when he got back that he wasn’t even able to sleep in a bed at night. To be upset that the general public doesn’t understand the tough position Bowe’s actions put his battle buddies in is shallow, petulant, and beside the point. The question lingering at the end of the episode is if any soldiers were killed or injured while searching for Bowe, as if we can line-item veto what’s worth dying for as a soldier. Either every death of every soldier in the service of her country is justified, or we can parse every loss individually. And if we can parse every loss, then isn’t it just as fucked-up that anyone died (and continues to die) in Iraq and Afghanistan at all?

Where I found myself agreeing with congressional Republicans (a phrase I never thought I’d write) is at their disgust that the White House didn’t notify them 30 days before the release of the prisoners we traded for Bergdahl, as is the legal requirement. Where I disagree with them is that the omission happened because of Obama’s personality, or something. It didn’t. The Executive branch has too much power; it has had it since the end of World War II, and the House Armed Services Committee can stiffen the language in every defense bill detailing stricter requirements for the release of Gitmo prisoners, but a reining-in of executive powers is going to take a little more of a systemic fix. And I think they know that. They’re just opportunists who want to leave all the options on the table should a Republican miraculously get elected to the White House.

Do I really need to say that this was a wide-focus episode? It was. But with so many overheated personalities and inflated egos (we’re talking about politics, after all), you also feel deeply enmeshed in people’s individual passions. Next episode sounds like it might be a little cooler, like a noir investigation. Let’s hope so. I’m sure we could all use a break from reactionary politics.

Serial Season Two, Episode 10 Recap